Thailand mulls replacing $28bn Kra canal idea with a railway

A frequently proposed, frequently cancelled plan to build a 100km canal between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea is back on the Thai government’s radar, after a fashion.

Except now instead of a waterway the idea is to build two ports linked by a railway.

The Thai government has approved a budget of $5.3m to study the plan, its transport minister has said.

A link across the Kra isthmus (pictured), the narrowest point of the Malay peninsula, would bypass the increasingly congested Strait of Malacca, which is the narrow stretch of water pinched between the peninsula and the island of Sumatra, with Singapore at its southeastern end.

About a quarter of the world’s traded goods pass through the strait, and a canal would relieve this pressure and cut sea routes between the Indian and Pacific oceans by some 1,100km.

However, the estimated $28bn cost of the project has proved prohibitive and, once built, it would require continuous dredging to maintain.

In an interview with the Bloomberg news organisation last week, Saksiam Chidchob, Thailand’s transport minister, said his government may build two deepwater ports on the peninsula and link them with a railway and a motorway.

This would be cheaper and cause less environmental damage than a 400m-wide canal.

"Using an alternative route through Thailand would cut shipping time by more than two days, which is very valuable for businesses," Chidchob said.

The canal project has been backed by China, which is seeking to reduce its dependence on the Strait of Malacca. In 2015, China and Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding on it.

Thailand began building Highway 44 across the Kra isthmus in the 1990s. It has been completed, and the corridor has enough space for a railway and pipelines, but it has not been connected to a port.

Image: Map shows roughly where the Kra isthmus shipping link would be (GCR/Google Maps)

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